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Why groceries cause truck crashes


No, I don’t mean putting too many jalapenos on your lunch, or trying to eat a sandwich while driving. Let me digress a moment and tell a story.

I’m a third generation truck driver. Both of my grandfathers started out with horses, and later drove trucks. (in fact, my father helped my grandfather with deliveries by horse and wagon). Uncles, cousins etc. – all truck drivers, with a couple of mechanics thrown in here and there.

About fifteen years ago, I went down to Texas for my maternal grandfather’s 100th birthday party. My "travel agent" found me a load that got me right there, with several extra days on it. Nice. When I got there, my grandfather of course had to come out and look at my truck. "Wow. That’s a lot bigger than the trucks I used to drive" he said. "Tell me, what kind of stuff do you haul?". "Well, granpa, pretty much anything unless it glows or blows". "Do you ever haul groceries? I used to hate hauling groceries because they always made you unload your own truck".

Guess what, granpa? It’s the 21st century, and grocery warehouses still make drivers unload their own truck — by hand.

Now, if this sounds somewhat far-fetched, I suggest you go down to any truckstop, sit at the lunch counter, and ask truck drivers about grocery loads. I guarantee you, that any driver hauling van or refrigerated freight will happily tell you any number of horror stories about grocery warehouses.

Let me explain a bit about the process of unloading at a grocery warehouse.

You check in with the receiver, who gives you a sheet known as "Ti’s & Hi’s". This tells you how many boxes they want on a layer, how many layers high they want it stacked, and what size pallet to use. Of course, the way the shipper loaded the truck never matches the Ti’s & Hi’s.

The next thing you’re usually asked, is if you’re going to use a lumper. No, that’s not misspelled. A lumper is a person who unloads trucks at warehouses. Years ago, you could usually find a local wino who’d happily unload your truck for a twenty, while you caught a nap in the bunk. Not so anymore. They’ve figured out that sleep is a valuable commodity to truck drivers, particularly with the HOS regulations that went into effect in 2004. Now, it’s not unusual for a lumper to demand three hundred (or more) dollars to unload a truck.

A few trucking companies will reimburse lumper fees, but many won’t, or will only pay part of it. If the driver doesn’t have the money, then he’s going to be throwing boxes.

Now a word about the Hours of Service regulations. A driver may drive up to 11 hours, in a period not to exceed 14 hours — but there’s no restriction on the maximum number of hours a driver can be required to work — only drive. So, a driver can (and is frequently) expected to work a 14 hour day to get the load there, and then take however long it takes to unload the truck. How long does it take to unload a truck by hand? That, of course, depends on the load. The average time is probably around 6 hours or so, but I’ve seen loads that have taken drivers three days (!) to unload.

So, why do grocery warehouses insist that drivers unload freight by hand? Simple — they’re using truck drivers as free dock labor to do their order picking. It’s not uncommon to break a single pallet of freight down into ten or more pallets. When you’ve got a couple of dozen pallets on the truck, you can see how time consuming that would become.

Where truck drivers aren’t doing their order picking for them, it’s a convenience thing for the warehouses. Sometimes their shelves will only handle freight stacked a couple of feet high on a pallet.

At a grocery warehouse in Indianapolis, I once asked a receiver "Why don’t you just make your shelves bigger?". He replied "our shelves are big enough". When I asked him why I was breaking the load down, he said "It’s dangerous for us to reach over our heads to take down boxes". (The load was stacked about 9 feet high on pallets). "Well then, if it’s dangerous for you to take down freight, isn’t it dangerous for me too?" He got a puzzled look on his face, as if the thought had never occurred to him before, and just walked away without answering.

IB member attorneys might want to note that approximately 30% of work comp injuries to drivers come from unloading trucks by hand, of which probably 99% is probably actually order picking.

The preceding stories were about good grocery warehouses. Now, on to the bad ones.

The most common problems encountered by drivers at grocery warehouses are lumper scams. No, I don’t mean some guy takes money from the driver and doesn’t unload the truck. It’s the scams where the lumpers are in collusion with the receiver, or even the warehouse itself.

The most common scam is where drivers are effectively forced to use a lumper, at some exorbitant and inflated price.

For example, at a grocery warehouse in Alabama, they had only one, broken down, manual pallet jack to share between forty docks. The pallet jack was in such poor condition, that it was impossible to use it to pull a pallet off the truck. However, there was a lumper service operating on the docks that even had their own forklifts. You want your freight off the truck? You pay them or else.

Another example, are unreasonable demands. At a grocery warehouse in North Carolina, I had a load that would have been what is known as a "straight pull" — in other words, no breakdown required. All I had to do was get the pallets off the truck and onto the dock. The receiver asked me if I had a certification card to operate a powered pallet jack, which I do, and provided it to him. He then asked for proof of a one million dollar liability insurance policy that would cover me while operating it. Right. Sure. We all have that.

At a grocery warehouse on the east coast, I was asked if I would use a lumper. I said "Let me see the Ti’s & Hi’s". The receiver refused. I asked how I was supposed to know, and he replied that I just had to decide. When I said I would unload it, he then told me that there would be a six hour wait for a dock, but if I used a lumper they could get me in right away.

At the warehouses of several large national retailers, they won’t allow you to hire and bring in your own labor. Either the driver does it alone, or you pay their price. What makes it worse, is you’re paying for their employees (not a lumper or lumper service) to unload their freight. They even have a cash register conveniently located right in the receiving office to take your money.

Another favorite trick used to force drivers into hiring lumpers is to limit dock time. When you check in, they’ll tell you that you have (usually) two hours of dock time to get it unloaded. If you’re not done, they’ll make you pull out of the dock, and make you schedule another appointment to finish — which can be from (usually) one to three days hence. So, you either pay the lumper, or end up there for two or three days.

Of course, most of these grocery warehouses don’t have anyplace for drivers to park and take their DOT mandated breaks afterwards. Some do, but most don’t. In a couple of my previous posts, I laid out some scenarios about drivers and hours problems.

When a driver ends up unloading the truck, instead of being logged as on-duty not driving, this time frequently gets logged as sleeper time. I know, it shouldn’t be, but some drivers feel compelled to do this for economic reasons. In other cases, it’s to be able to drive out to a truckstop. Even if a driver gets paid for unloading, it frequently doesn’t even come up to minimum wage.

There’s also an economic downside to the whole grocery warehouse thing. Lumpers mostly get paid in cash — and I’ll wager most of it never gets reported as income for tax purposes. The whole process is also very time consuming, having a severe negative impact on the daily revenue of the truck. I was reading the tariffs for a cartage company the other day, and they charged an extra $200 for deliveries that went to grocery warehouses – and that didn’t include any unloading or other fees.

There are only two ways that this is going to change. One is if the DOT regulations get changed to ban the practice, which at this point in time doesn’t look too likely. The other is if grocery warehouses have to shell out some high dollar liability settlements.

I’d love to hear what IB’s member attorneys think. Any chance of some good lawsuits against these places?


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  1. Jon Lewis says:
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    Another great, thought-provoking post by Truckie D. A few thoughts: 1) Get the major carriers to protest these activities – don’t know if that is possible because they may lose the business;

    2) Put these grocers on notice of these issues and continue to make the notices public. At that point, you might create a duty on their behalf because they will be acting in this capacity with the knowledge that they are putting these drivers back on the road in an overworked condition.

    3) Also, if you are an employee and not an independent driver, is there a way to include lumper pricing in the contract, or will you be overpriced?

    4) Finally, there might be some type of deceptive trade practice going on when they know that you are going to have to pay the lumpers because they are making it impossible for you to complete the job without hiring these lumpers.

  2. Truckie D says:
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    Great comments Jon. Here’s a little more info:

    “…1) Get the major carriers to protest these activities – don’t know if that is possible because they may lose the business”

    Exactly correct. Especially now, with freight so bad, this is simply not going to happen. When freight was better, anything going to a grocery warehouse as pretty much last choice.

    “2) Put these grocers on notice of these issues and continue to make the notices public. At that point, you might create a duty on their behalf because they will be acting in this capacity with the knowledge that they are putting these drivers back on the road in an overworked condition.”

    Grocery warehouses know all about these issues – and have for the last hundred years (literally). Their view is “not our problem”. Is there some way that they could be forced in some way to notice, and assume their fair share of the responsibility?

    “3) Also, if you are an employee and not an independent driver, is there a way to include lumper pricing in the contract, or will you be overpriced?”

    Right now, price is everything. It’s so cutthroat right now, that carriers are moving loads below cost.

    “4) Finally, there might be some type of deceptive trade practice going on when they know that you are going to have to pay the lumpers because they are making it impossible for you to complete the job without hiring these lumpers.”

    There are regulations that are supposed to prevent many of these abuses. There’s even a hotline run by the DOT to report these jokers, but nothing ever seems to be done.

    There are a few enlightened companies. One in particular offers the deal that if the grocery warehouse gets the truck out in less than 2 hours, they get a discount on the load. Some warehouses have taken them up on the offer, but many have not.

  3. John Taratuta says:
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    The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) filed a lawsuit in 2005 against a major chain-store based on 49 U.S.C. Section 14103 (a) and (b)which makes forced, uncompensated unloading illegal. It was delayed twice in 2008 and according to their website (landlinemag.com), it “may” proceed in 2009.

    It seems to me a driver would also be protected by Dept. of Labor (DOL) Public Interest Disclosure laws. For example:
    “On August 3, 2007, the Surface Transportation
    Assistance Act of 1982 (STAA), 49 U.S.C. Section
    31105, was amended by The Implementing
    Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act
    (Public Law 110-53) to include new rights and
    remedies.” OSHA FACT SHEET.

    But employers, however, cannot read minds and under STAA, for example, need to be given an opportunity to remedy the situation in order for the driver to be covered.

  4. Mike Bryant says:
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    Very interesting post. I’ve had two cases where drivers were run over by lumpers. Seems like the pressure that they use , could be used back at them. If the load is already at a loss, the extra lumper costs adds to that.

  5. mikeeeee says:
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    40 years ago i learned a neat trick from an old produce hauler.

    go to a stationery store and get a rubber stamp made up that says….


    stamp you bills after you sign for the load.

    another surefire way to keep from fingerprinting loads is don’t load them in the first place.

    i’m curious though, it only took me 15 years of driving to learn that if it doesn’t walk off, fall off, pour off or fly off, let someone else haul it.

    that was 30 years ago and i can count the times on my fingers i’ve touched freight since then,

    it’s really the carriers’ fault anyway, for hauling freight so cheap, pushing drivers and making them live in a truck.

    another way to look at it is, ‘highway homeless’.

    over in europe drivers can only drive 40 hours a week here we legally can work 70 and with 168 hours in a week most truck drivers here fudge logbooks and work ’til they drop and then brag about it.

  6. Truckie D says:
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    John – Thanks for some great comments. I did a little digging thanks to your citations.

    This link: http://www.bpmlaw.com/TransportationHMCL0707/tabid/1739/Default.aspx

    At the bottom of the page tells about a current lawsuit over some of what I mentioned in this post.

    This link: http://www.ooida.com/Issues&Actions/Regulatory/commentdocs/Intermodal%20comments%203-07.pdf

    is interesting. It says “…To date, OOIDA is unaware of a single prosecution for violation of this so-called “lumper law”.

    This link: http://www.ooida.com/Education&BusinessTools/Resources/Lumping_regs.shtml

    goes to OOIDA’s page on lumper regulations.

  7. Truckie D says:
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    Mike –

    I’m glad to hear you had some cases like that. I hope you got some *huge* damage awards for the drivers.

    The problem is, with freight so bad, trucking companies don’t have much leverage to counter this stuff.

  8. Truckie D says:
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    Mikeeeee –

    The rubber stamp is a good idea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work much anymore. Nowadays, most loads are set up via computers. If I stamp a set of bills like that, and the company I lease to finds out, they’d likely terminate my lease for violation of their integrity policy.

    What seems to be effective though, are eyelashes.

    A few years ago, I had a female student. I had been complaining for the last fifty miles over having to unload the trailer by hand. When we got there, she said “I’ll go in and bat my eyelashes at them and see if I can get them to do it”. She did, and they unloaded it — and quickly.